Fists were raised to the air and handshakes between teammates exchanged. Brows were mopped and audible sighs of relief emitted. No illusions were made; in Brendan Rogers’ Liverpool, Manchester City knew that they had negotiated one of the most intense afternoons they are likely to face this season. For the majority of the game, the Kopites played with the verve, intensity and imagination that their newly-appointed manager craves. City had been left reeling against the ropes, hopefully anticipating the bell. Against the subtle jabs and swift combination blows, however, City found the resolve to land two bludgeons of their own. The points were shared, but the Blues knew that theirs had been hard earned.
In truth, it was in midfield that the battle ought to have been lost. In Joe Allen, City came up against a playmaker in truly inspired form. Impish and imperious by turn, the former Swansea man played with an imagination and composure belying the fact that this was his Anfield debut. Espousing the ‘receive, pass, offer’ dictum of the modern day midfield metronome, he exposed the imbalance of City’s midfield.
Immaculate though his range of passing was – he completed 21 successful passes out of 21 in City’s half – it was ably abetted by the attacking trident ahead of him. An intoxicating cocktail of mischief, invention and pace, Luis Suare, Raheem Sterling and Fabio Borini induced the jitters in a normally imperious Vincent Kompany. With intelligent runs betwixt centre-backs and full-backs, they opened up space behind the unpredictable Aleksander Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta and provoked acts of rashness usually antithetical to City’s nature.
Indeed, Liverpool’s goals stemmed indirectly from two such acts. The first owed much to a chaotic slice from Kompany which eluded the crossbar by this much. If Gerrard’s vicious angular cross which begat the errant interception was dangerous, his subsequent corner was lethal. Martin Skrtel’s treat the cross with the relish it deserved. Rarely will a header of such gleeful purity be scored this season.
Yaya Toure’s equalising goal ought to have brought calm where anxiety once ruled. Yet the initiative was immediately wrested out of City’s grasp as Gerrard bulldozed a typically swashbuckling route through the midfield. If the decision to award a free-kick against Jack Rodwell for handball seemed harsh, it nevertheless emphasised the lack of control City were able to impose on the game. Suarez’s free-kick, Pythagorean in its precision, was calculation in excelsis.
Control and ambition were the two characteristics which seemed the sole possession of Brendan Rogers’ side. It was only with the 76th minute introduction of David Silva for the more mundane talents of James Milner that one sensed the Citizens were capable of moving through the gears. City had been all perspiration; the Spaniard offered inspiration. Now Mancini’s men too had a player capable of vivisecting the opposition.
The irony as such was that, when City’s second punch did connect, it came as a direct result of a misplaced Liverpool pass. Fifteen minutes later, as City blew out their cheeks in relief, Martin Skrtel trudged from the field, his head at 45 degrees, unwilling to avert his eyes from the turf. Joe Allen had not played a path as perfect all game. Unfortunately, it fell straight into Carlos Tevez’s path. The Argentine needed no invitation, scurrying clear to ensure the champions emerged, if a little shaken, unstirred.
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